The Austin Food Bloggers Alliance City Guide 2012 offers information about dining options in the Austin area created by local bloggers. The following blog entry is an overview of the 2012 fine dining scene in Austin, arranged by the area of town in which the restaurants are located. A word of caution or note about fine dining in Austin–although some of the fine-dining options in the city are truly “upscale dining” in the traditional sense of the word, the casual vibe of the city means that some of the finest meals in Austin sometimes reflect a less “traditional” scene than fine dining options elsewhere. But, don’t mistake a more casual dress or contemporary decor for less impressive skill or tastes from the kitchens. (For a second perspective, be sure to check out this Fine Dining blog post by Foodie is the New Forty).
DOWNTOWN (River to 183, bordered by MoPac & I-35)
Downtown Austin is brimming with fine-dining options. Two of the most buzzed about restaurants to come along in the last few years both make their homes at 200 Congress Avenue, and both were the brainchildren of lauded, James Beard Award nominated chef, David Bull. Congress is one of Austin’s only five-star restaurants, and was selected by Bon Appétit Magazine as one of its 10 best new restaurants of 2011. Congress offers nightly fixed price three-course or seven-course tasting menus with sophisticated offerings and the freshest available ingredients in an elegant, beautifully appointed setting. Second Bar + Kitchen is Congress‘s more casual younger sister. Second offers small plates, rotisserie selections, and entrees, all with the same “Natural American” approach as Congress. Second also offers an extensive selection of craft beers.
Another lovely downtown fine-dining option is the Driskill Grill. This five-star spot is housed in the grand dame of Austin hotels, the historic Driskill. The Driskill grill is opulent, intimate, and lovely, and serves sophisticated meals that are beautifully presented. The Driskill Grill is a wonderful spot for a special occasion or a romantic dinner. This is truly one of the most luxurious dining spots in town. Grab a meal in the lovely bar outside before or after your meal. It’s one of the coziest spots in town for a drink and conversation. The balcony also has great views of Sixth Street.
The Four Seasons Hotel downtown is home to another ritzy dining spot–Trio. Trio offers a range of raw seafood offerings and small plates with a Texas twist. Trio‘s menu also includes a number of seafood and steak options. This lovely spot also offers beautiful patio dining options with views overlooking Lady Bird Lake. The staff at Trio gets raves for its friendly, attentive service, and this place is a popular choice for pre-theater or pre-event dining, and has a thriving happy hour scene.
Trace is situated in the very happening W Hotel on Congress. This buzzed about spot has a striking, sophisticated dining area. The menu hones in on Central Texas influences from flavors to sourcing. The hopping happy hour here (called S.I.P. or Socially Interactive Playtime) is available daily, and intermittently, is an all-day offering (check website for dates). The food focus here is fresh, seasonal, artisanal, and above all else–local.
Parkside makes its home on a stretch of Sixth Street best known for drinking and bar food, but definitely dresses the area up with its delicious, inspired dining options. Parkside exudes a French country flair with a decidedly modern twist. The menu includes an extensive array of North American oysters, as well as an amazingly affordable happy hour menu. Chef Shawn Cirkiel and his team whip up elegant bites and cocktails in a relaxed, unpretentious setting. Check out a detailed blog post about Parkside here.
One of the best downtown spots for steaks is III Forks. Start off your meal at this upscale dining spot by enjoying a cocktail or glass of wine in the piano bar before you move into the dark, clubby dining area, complete with mahogany and marble accents. The menu at III Forks is “Texas French,” with an extended list of fine steak and seafood options, as well as a number of upscale bar bites. The service at III Forks garners kudos for its attentiveness and friendliness.
For an upscale meal with an Asian twist, Imperia in the Warehouse District is an excellent choice. Imperia‘s menu offerings include a vast array of specialty cocktails (try the Imperia Pearl with Grey Goose and nigori sake) and sakes, as well as inventive dim sum and small plates selections (the yuzu crusted oysters are a standout). Happy hour offerings at Imperia are an excellent way to sample this playful Asian fusion menu.
Chez Nous is just steps from Sixth Street, but once inside, truly feels like you are a world away.This jewel is one of the most under-appreciated spots in town. This cozy French spot is as authentic a French experience as you can have outside the City of Lights. Operated by three Paris natives, Chez Nous is a romantic nook of a restaurant that offers beautifully presented, authentic French dishes at remarkably reasonable prices. The menu du jour offers a three-course fixed price selection for under $30 per person. The house pâté and rillettes are reliably sumptuous, and the desserts always impress. Chez Nous is very romantic, and makes a great date spot.
Another downtown standout is Péché, a Warehouse District spot with a decidedly speakeasy vibe. Péché offers Prohibition-era cocktails, handcrafted with house-made ingredients and sheer craftsmanship (the French 75 and Fig Manhattan with house bitters and fig foam are excellent options). On the food side of things, Chef Jason Dodge and his talented team whip up consistent, delicious European-inspired dishes that are clean-your-plate good. (You cannot go wrong with the charcuterie and risotto options here). Check out a detailed blog about Péché here.
La Condesa off Second Street drips sexiness, with a bold Latin vibe an unabashed people-watching opportunities. Whether in the vibrant dining room or one of the welcoming outdoor patios,La Condesa is the perfect spot to sample some spicy bites and wash them down with a delicious South of the Border cocktail. The vibe is young and urban, with Latin beats pulsing and vibrant colors throughout. Check out a detailed blog post about La Condesa here.
Just a few steps down Second Street from La Condesa,Malaga serves up delicious Spanish tapas in a vibrant, often packed space (especially on weekends). The lively spot features rich woods, warm color palettes, the occasional flamenco costume item, and walls of wine bottles. The menu includes a wide selection of both cold and hot tapas, specialty cocktails, and a seriously impressive wine list (which won the spot a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence). Their happy hour special is a jaw-dropping bargain. For a detailed blog post about Malaga, click here.
On West Sixth Street, Bess Bistro is one of the most romantic restaurants in the city. Housed in a beautifully renovated bank vault, the intimate experience starts when you enter down a flight of stairs down beneath West Sixth Street. The warm lighting, beautiful exposed stone walls, glittering chandeliers, and cozy booths make the Bess Bistro experience both welcoming and intimate. The food is Southern comfort with a French flair. Start your meal with a bubbly Bess Cocktail, and I highly recommend sharing the divine macaroni and cheese (it’s reliably a crowd-pleaser).
WEST (West of Mo-Pac)
On the western side of town, just across Mo-Pac is Fabi + Rosi, a divine European bistro housed in a jewel-box restored bungalow near Lake Austin Boulevard. Fabi + Rosi is a beautiful, twinkling spot that is at once homey, intimate, and romantic, all while maintaining a youthful, modern twist. The food draws from a variety of European influences. The escargots, schnitzel and spätzle, and duck confit are standouts. Check out a detailed blog post about Fabi + Rosi here.
Further north, in the Mesa Drive area is a lovely neighborhood bistro serving up delicious French offerings. Bistrot Mirabelle serves up delicious French standards such as coq au vin and cassoulet in a warm, inviting environment with stellar service. This reinvented spot is the sort of neighborhood spot every neighborhood only wishes it has, with hearty, comforting meals in a dimly lit, charming setting. This is a lovely spot for a romantic dinner or a gathering of great friends. For a detailed blog post about Bistrot Mirabelle, click here.
EAST (East of I-35)
East Side Show Room makes its home on a thriving strip of Sixth Street east of I-35. This eclectic spot serves up handcrafted cocktails in a spot inspired by pre-World War II era European cabarets and music halls. The cocktails are prepared with a nod to historical integrity, using hand-selected liquors and fresh-picked herbs. The menu changes regularly, but features charcuterie, soups, and European sauces with a farm-to-table, whole-animal focus.
Much further east on 5th Street is Justine’s, a sultry brasserie in small house with crimson walls and dark woods. Although waits here can get long (even longer on weekends), use the delay as an excuse to stand close together at the bar or huddle near one of the outdoor heaters while sipping quality handcrafted cocktails like Sazeracs or French 75s. The menu is filled with delicious French dishes ranging from cozy comfort classics like coq au vin to more daring options like a delicious steak tartare (which is delicious). The vibe at Justine’s is definitely young, hip, and bustling.
After the downtown gem Restaurant Jezebel succumbed to an unfortunate fire, Chef Parind Vora set his sites on the East side with Braise. This Modern American spot boasts a seriously extensive wine list, with offerings in a variety of price ranges (and a focus on affordable options). The menu offers a three-course fixed-price menu with inventive, unexpected combinations such as peekie toe crab with Sriracha aioli and escargot with green Thai curry. Braise has a decidedly green focus, and serves only sushi-grade sushi and meets without hormones or genetic modification.
SOUTH (South of the River)
South Austin is home to a growing number of fine dining options, helmed by some of the most talented, lauded chefs in town. South Congress Avenue is home to Perla’s, headed up by Lawrence McGuire and Thomas Moorman Jr. This eye-catching spot features a lovely, perfect-for-people-watching patio shaded by a giant oak. Although the vibe at Perla’s may appear casual at first blush, the food is refined, understated, and delicious. Perla’s flies in fresh seafood daily, and offers an impressive array of raw oysters. The poco and grande platters are a great way to sample the wares. Be sure to also check out the tasty Crab Louie and cornmeal fried tomatoes. They are addictive. For a detailed blog post about Perla’s, click here.
South Congress is also home to the dynamic duo of Vespaio and Enoteca, a pair of warm, inviting Italian spots that are at once inviting and homey. This duo of restaurants offer handmade pizzas, pastas, and antipasti with skill, craftsmanship, and a rustic charm that make you want to linger, chat with friends, and savor the flavors. The bar at Vespaio is a great place to meet friends for a glass of wine or a cocktail. The Sunday brunch at Enoteca includes a range of sophisticated yet comforting options that draw serious weekend crowds.
South Congress Cafe is a cozy, delicious spot located on a seriously hopping corner of South Congress Avenue known for shopping, strolling, and people-watching. The food is impeccable, and the brunch is one of the most popular in the city. The crab cakes and gumbo are divine. South Congress Cafe serves up complex, inventive food that would be the envy of many establishments with price tags much higher than the ones on its menu. Check out a detailed blog post about South Congress Cafe here.
Paggi House offers some of the best patio dining in the city, with enviable views of downtown and Lady Bird Lake. Housed in a historic property dating back to the 1840s, Paggi Houseoffers handcrafted cocktails, and a New American menu that draws from seasonal, local ingredients, not to mention items from the restaurant’s own garden. Be sure to check out the Sunday brunch buffet and the great happy hour offerings.
Lenoir is a newcomer on the South Austin fine dining scene, but has made quite a splash. This quaint, charming spot is akin to dining in a (very talented) friend’s home for a meal. The fixed-price menu focuses on the following categories: field, sea, land, and dream, with a decidedly Asian flavor. This spot is small, so reservations are recommended, but with menu offerings such as raw points aux pins oysters and axis venison, expect the unexpected.
For a sampling of the fares of one of Austin’s most celebrated chefs, head to Uchi on South Lamar. Chef and James Beard Award winner Tyson Cole prepares elegant, whimsical, and beautiful Asian fusion dishes in a romantic, dimly lit South Austin bungalow. Few restaurants in the city have received more accolades than Uchi (and few tables are harder to wrangle). The food at Uchi is definitely buzz-worthy, featuring fresh fish flown in daily from Japan, and an ever-changing menu that is experimental, innovative, and interactive. Uchi is truly a must-try on the Austin foodie bucket list.
A bit further down South Lamar is another standout spot serving some of Austin’s most elegant dishes. Olivia makes its home in a modern spot that marries metal, wood, and glass. Behind the restaurant proper is a smaller building, not much more than a shack, where the chef conjures up the daily offerings before heading inside to prepare some of Austin’s tastiest meals. Olivia is a true testament to the farm-to-table experience, with the daily menu evolving based on one thing–what are the freshest ingredients available that day from local farmers and producers. The result is elegant comfort food that makes it easy to see why this spot was called one of the country’s 10 best new restaurants in 2009 by Bon Appétit Magazine.
Another young chef making a big splash on the Austin restaurant scene is Bryce Gilmore, who takes the helm at the uber-popular Barley Swine. The imaginative offerings at Barley Swine reflect a duality that inspires every dish: part mad scientist, part craftsmanship and refinement. Despite the name, Barley Swine is not just about beer and pork (although both are plentifully represented). The ever-changing menu is experimental, whimsical, and downright mystifying at times–but in the best way possible. Although the seating is communal and the air is relaxed and casual, with evolving menu items such as sage funnel cake with foie gras and grilled chicken with dill foam, the food here can be nothing if not upscale (even if the spot itself chooses not to take itself too seriously).
CENTRAL (MLK to Hwy. 183)
Thanks to a newcomer at the AT&T Conference Center, the sometimes barren fine-dining scene near the University of Texas has received a welcome jolt of sophistication. Carillon is a New American grill helmed by Chef Josh Watkins. Chef Watkins, who apprenticed at Driskill Grill under now-Congress chef David Bull, has helped launch Carillon to four-star status, thanks to his sophisticated menu, which marries contemporary and classic approaches to cuisine. From white tuno crudo with citrus confit, mint, and brown butter to miso marinated sablefish, Carillon brings a touch of elegance and inspiration to the dining scene near campus.
Just past campus on North Lamar, FINO also brings a touch of fine dining to the Central Austin area. Nestled in a second story perch amidst plentiful trees, FINO offers dining an inside-outside feel with bountiful windows and welcoming patio dining options. The menu at FINO merges Mediterranean flavors, deriving inspiration from Spanish, North African, and Greek palates. The plates at FINO are made for sharing, and the inspired cocktails from award winning drink guru Bill Norris make this a great gathering spot.
Just past downtown on North Lamar, Wink offers accessible fine dining with a flair of French craftsmanship. Wink prides itself with using restraint to highlight the natural flavors of the freshest available ingredients. Wink flies in its seafood daily from boat coasts, and constantly changes the menu to accommodate its freshest finds. The same evolving approach applies to the wine offerings at Wink, with an extensive list available that receives constant tinkering, in order to accommodate even small vintners with limited offerings. But although Wink prides itself on not being pretentious, make no mistake–this kitchen offers skills, elegant meals (a recent daily menu included black buck antelope with chard, oyster mushrooms, and port reduction, as well as seared duck breast with date-molasses gastrique). This is a cozy spot for an intimate, sophisticated meal without an intimidating air.
Central Austin is also home to one of the city’s oldest, loveliest Mexican meccas. Fonda San Miguel is tucked away just a couple blocks from a bustling strip of Burnet Road. But the beautiful fonda in which this eatery makes its home feels like you left town for a much more exotic locale. The courtyard at Fonda San Miguel is one of the most picturesque spots in town to sip a margarita and nibble on chips and salsa. Amazingly, the dining area is almost as lovely, with Oaxacan art and terracotta accents helping to set the scene. The menu at Fonda San Miguel focuses on Interior Mexican. The mole sauce at this place is beloved, as is the plentiful (if pricey) Sunday brunch.
The team from Parkside also has a new fine-dining player on the scene with Olive & June. This newcomer, housed in the lovely spot formerly occupied by El Arbol, features an Italian menu marked by piccoli piati (Italian small plates), craft pastas, and a range of entrees and sides with an Italian accent (think white beans with escarole and pancetta or grilled swordfish with capers and mint). Just weeks after opening, Olive & June was already garnering raves from diners and critics alike. As of the time of this writing, the kinks (and hours) were still being worked out, but if early buzz is any indicator, Chef Cirkiel and his team will have another tasty winner on their hands.
One of the hottest upscale dining tables to score in Central Austin is at Uchiko, thanks in no small part to the heat being generated about its chef, Paul Qui. Chef Qui has been a feature on this season’s Texas cented Top Chef on Bravo TV, and has been named as a semifinalist for a 2012 James Beard Award. This sleek, modern spot puts out some of the most inventive, creative, and beautiful dishes in the city (including a delicious duck dish named by Food and Wine Magazine as one of the 10 best restaurant dishes of 2011). The desserts here are works of modern art. To check out the consistently incredible offerings of a chef clearly in the midst of his stride, Uchiko is a must. Check out a detailed blog post about Uchiko here.
A bit further North in Central Austin, is brash standout, Foreign & Domestic. This spot, headed up by seriously pedigreed chefs/owners Ted and Jodi Elliott, positions itself as a neighborhood spot but with sophisticated yet accessible foods … and a bit of attitude. The menu at Foreign & Domestic changes frequently, due to a focus on seasonal, fresh ingredients taking center stage. But few neighborhoods can boast a local spot with this sort of culinary inventiveness or adventurousness (think pig brains and huckleberries or semolina dumplings with pork belly, broccoli, and cheddar).
NORTH (North of Hwy. 183)
North by Northwest (NXNW) is a North Austin spot inspired by the microbreweries of the American Northwest. This extensive spot is housed in a modernistic metallic and glass building with a great silo out front. All of the beers served at NXNW are brewed on the premises, with “growlers” available for transporting beer home. The menu is definitely several steps up from the usual bar food, with offerings ranging from grilled bacon wrapped quail to roasted lamb with garlic pine nut polenta. This spot is a happening happy hour spot.
North Austin is also home to Mikado Ryotei, a lovely Japanese tapas spot just off Burnet Road. The focus at this spot is Northern Japanese small plates and extensive sushi offerings. Mikado also offers a range of sushi options. The fish offerings at this spot are flown in fresh several days each week, and the ambiance is cozy and intimate.
LAKEWAY/LAKE TRAVIS AREA
Steiner Ranch Steakhouse can claim probably the most scenic vistas of any Austin restaurant. This hilltop spot occupies a storied spot previously home to rodeo and ranching operations. But the stellar views of Lake Travis are not the only thing this spot has to offer. Steiner Ranch Steakhouse offers an impressive wine list from its vast cellars, as well as a fine selection of USDA prime beef steak selections. The floor-to-ceiling windows and generous patios make this a perfect spot to grab a bit, enjoy a drink, and revel in a beautiful Hill Country sunset.
Adventurous eaters or those looking for a uniquely Texas eating experience should make the trek out toward Lake Travis to Hudson’s on the Bend. This charming eatery in a cozy, twinkling stone house is nestled among a grouping of trees just a minutes from the Lake. The intimate dining areas make this a perfect spot for a romantic evening or special occasion. The menu here is decidedly different, with a focus on wild game and uniquely Texan flavors. This spot is definitively upscale in both price and ambiance, but with menu offerings including rattlesnake, alligator, and axis venison, there is enough whimsy and creativity from the kitchen, that a meal here avoids being too stuffy while still being special.
Another fine-dining experience in the Lake Travis direction comes via a tiny Bee Caves gem that serves has been serving beautifully presented Irish fare in one of Austin’s most intimate settings since 1984. The Emerald Restaurant truly looks like a story book cottage come to life. A meal at The Emerald is pure elegance and charm, with meals served on silver platters, drinks served in Irish crystal, and meals served on Irish china. The menu at The Emerald includes a number of the owners’ family recipes, and include Irish notables like potato soup and Irish stew to more elegant delicacies like chateaubriand, quail with dressing, and bacon wrapped sweetbreads.